FirstNet Delays Vote to Release RFP Following Finance Committee Questions

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board today delayed for “several weeks” approving the release of a draft comprehensive network request for proposals (RFP) to provide additional time to answer questions raised by members of its Finance Committee.

Yesterday, a FirstNet spokesman said that the board planned to move forward today to vote on the material terms of the draft RFP that were endorsed by the board’s three other committees, while giving the Finance Committee additional time get answers to its questions (TRDaily, March 24). But the board ended up delaying a vote on release of the entire RFP. Finance Committee members said they had questions about the RFP during a meeting yesterday.

“We want to make sure that we set up this correctly right at the front end of this. This is not something that you can put out there and hope that it works. I mean, you want to be absolutely correct in terms of how you frame this up,” FirstNet board Chairwoman Sue Swenson said during today’s meeting after the board met in closed session to discuss the draft RFP. She added that board members would work with management on outstanding issues “over the next several weeks.”

“We will work on a few items that … we think we need to spend a bit more time on before we actually approve management to go forward with release of the notice for the draft RFP,” Ms. Swenson added, saying that board members had generally coalesced around management’s acquisition proposal. “In the very near future, we anticipate that will happen based on the discussions over the last couple of days, and we look forward to actually coming to this conclusion and moving forward as we anticipated.”

Ms. Swenson did not detail the specific issues that Finance Committee members have questions about, but she stressed the importance of FirstNet providing “the absolutely best network and service to our public safety community at a reasonable price.”

Finance Committee Chair Tim Bryan endorsed the delay, saying that the RFP “is not a box to be checked.”  “It is an absolutely critical and vital piece that underlies our business plan, which is everything,” he added.

In announcing yesterday that his committee had questions on the RFP, Mr. Bryan said that members discussed “pricing” and “structural mechanisms” related to acquisition and stressed the importance of FirstNet being able to “solidify” assumptions made in its business plan.

Board Vice Chair Jeff Johnson today also voiced support for delaying action on releasing the RFP, stressing the importance of getting “it right up front.” He said that “it will be more efficient to move it through the system [in one vote] than if it’s disjointed in any way.”

During a conference call with reporters this afternoon, FirstNet acting Executive Director TJ Kennedy and Chief Counsel Stuart Kupinsky downplayed the significance of the board pushing back its vote to release the draft RFP.

During yesterday’s Finance Committee meeting, Mr. Kennedy said, “I would say we covered most elements in [the draft RFP related to cost and the business model and pricing details] very well, and there [were] just a few that the Finance Committee would like us to come back on with some additional detail, and so we’ll be doing that over the next several weeks.”

He said he expected the board to hold a follow-up meeting via teleconference “over the next several weeks” to approve release of the draft RFP. “We’re almost there,” he added.  “We’re not revisiting a business plan,” Mr. Kennedy stressed later in the call. “We have a Finance Committee looking at material terms of a … draft RFP set of documents.”

Mr. Kupinsky noted that Ms. Swenson mentioned that board members have coalesced around management’s approach, adding, “It’s not a situation where there’s sort of a whole cloth look at any of the, you know, material terms of the business plan or anything of that nature.”

Asked why the board decided to wait to vote on the entire RFP rather than voting today to release some documents, Mr. Kennedy said, “I think the biggest reason is just a lot of these things are tied together. It’s a complex equation.”

Mr. Kupinsky said the decision to wait to vote was simply “a procedural … matter.” He said he could not discuss specifics of issues that the Finance Committee has additional questions on, suggesting that it could violate the need to keep proprietary information confidential.

Mr. Kennedy said that FirstNet would like to release the RFP before an April 14-15 single point of contact (SPOC) meeting and before an industry day, which is expected to be held in April. Mr. Kennedy also said he doesn’t expect the few-weeks delay to change the overall schedule for release of a final RFP by the end of this year.

In other issues discussed at today’s meeting, Mr. Kennedy announced that FirstNet would extend by one week the deadline for filing comments on a second public notice released by the authority earlier this month (TRDaily, March 9). FirstNet had set a 30-day pleading cycle for comments, which were due April 13, drawing complaints from public safety officials who noted its complexity. Comments will now be due April 20.

The 59-page public notice seeks comment on a range of complex issues, such as the thorny matter of whether states that decide to build their own radio access networks (RANs) will have to forward funding from network capacity and subscriber user fees for use in other states or territories.  “Everyone has asked for a little more time so they can gather their responses,” Mr. Kennedy said.

“It’s a substantive notice,” Ms. Swenson said. “We want to hear from everybody,” she added, particularly noting the difficulty that smaller jurisdictions and public safety agencies may face in responding to the public notice.

“A number of the State Points of Contact are pleased with the schedule extension in the second public notice,” Bill Schrier, Washington state’s FirstNet SPOC and chair of the state’s Interoperability Executive Committee, told TRDaily this afternoon. “It is a dense document and is potentially divisive between states and internal to a state in that it discusses using income from urban areas to fund build-out in rural areas.  This sort of issue takes some time for us in states to process with our stakeholders and elected officials, and then formulate a considered response.”

Also at today’s meeting, Patrick Sullivan, an attorney-adviser for FirstNet, discussed an effort to identify 700 megahertz band public safety narrowbanding licensees that are currently using FirstNet’s spectrum but will “more than likely” need to be relocated before FirstNet commences operations. The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which created FirstNet, did not address how those incumbents would be relocated.

Mr. Sullivan said that FirstNet has initially identified 13 public safety systems in 11 states that would have to be relocated. He said that there are a total of about 40 systems in 18 states operating in the spectrum and that FirstNet is “assessing some of the operational aspects of the … remaining systems.”  Mr. Sullivan said FirstNet is reaching out to incumbents and attempting to collect data on systems. He said that it has developed a relocation program team and cost estimates and is looking at possible funding vehicles and technical evaluations of possible solutions.

Mr. Sullivan stressed that FirstNet wants to work with incumbents that will have to relocate to other spectrum. “We want to give everyone time to get off the band, and give us time to deploy so that there’s a seamless integration,” he said. In response to a question, Mr. Sullivan said that the relocation is far smaller than the 800 MHz band realignment, but he also noted that it includes statewide systems so FirstNet wants to ensure there is enough time on the front end for planning.

Ms. Swenson said that while the relocation is “relatively minor,” she added that “it does take time.”

Also today, Harlin McEwen, chair of FirstNet’s Public Safety Advisory Committee, addressed the board for the second time at a meeting.  Many in the public safety community, including former FirstNet board member Paul Fitzgerald, had complained that FirstNet did not make full use of the PSAC after it was established, but stakeholders generally seem more pleased now that it is being more fully utilized.

During his presentation, Mr. McEwen discussed the PSAC’s ongoing work, including early builder and tribal working groups and task teams focused on priority and preemption and public safety grade issues, as well as PSAC activities on user equipment.

Mr. McEwen thanked Ms. Swenson and Mr. Johnson for the invitation to appear. “I think this is a big step for the PSAC to be able to participate, [and] give you, occasionally, updates on our work,” he said. He added that he is developing “a good relationship” with board members, which he said is important for him and the PSAC.

“The PSAC is now recognized as a very valuable resource,” Mr. McEwen stressed, “and not just somebody that’s being tolerated.”

“That relationship has matured and is in an excellent place, and we really appreciate the advice and counsel,” Ms. Swenson said.  The tasks performed by the PSAC “are so important to the outcome of FirstNet,” Mr. Kennedy said. He also said that communications between FirstNet and the PSAC are “better than ever.”

Meanwhile, FirstNet said today that Jason Karp will take over as acting chief counsel upon the departure after this week of Mr. Kupinsky, who is joining Blackboard, Inc., as general counsel. Mr. Karp is currently deputy chief counsel and compliance officer.

Also today, the board welcomed Geovette Washington, the new Office of Management and Budget designee on the board. She is general counsel of OMB who was formerly deputy general counsel of the Commerce Department. She replaces Brian Deese, who was deputy director of OMB before leaving that agency.

In opening today’s meeting, Ms. Swenson reiterated that FirstNet has to walk a fine line between being transparent and risk disclosing “very proprietary” information that is part of its procurement process. She noted that all of the committees met yesterday for part of their sessions behind closed doors, as the full board did today.

“I know it’s probably a little frustrating for you not to have more information, but I hope you understand the balance that we have to maintain between being transparent and open and yet protecting the information that needs to be protected,” she said.- Paul Kirby,